Should I Feed My Baby On Demand or on a Schedule?

Mother feeding baby from bottle

What should I know about a baby’s feeding schedule?

  • Feeding needs vary depending on baby’s age
  • When to expect a natural feeding pattern to emerge
  • Which cues mean your baby is ready to eat

Many new parents wonder if they should be feeding on demand (following baby’s cues for when and how much to feed) or on a feeding schedule (feeding baby at timed intervals for a specific length of time).

Early on in your baby’s life, it’s best to feed on demand instead of following a newborn feeding schedule. A baby will let you know loud and clear (with rooting, crying, fussiness, clenched fists, and hands in their mouth) when they’re hungry, and it’s important to respond to these cues to support baby’s growth and development.1

In addition, frequent growth spurts during the first 6 months often cause baby’s hunger to spike for a few days.2, 3 Your little one needs more feedings during these times to help support their fast-paced growth. This makes it even more important to follow their cues. However, as your baby gets older, their own feeding schedule begins to emerge making it more predictable for you.

How often do newborns eat?

If it feels like you’re feeding your newborn around the clock, it’s because you are! Newborns require 8-12 feeds per day, and may feed anywhere from 10 to 60 minutes at a time.3  While breastfed babies typically nurse every 1.5-3 hours in the newborn phase, formula fed infants can sometimes go 3-4 hours between feeds. However, it’s important to follow your baby’s hunger and fullness cues rather than a newborn feeding schedule to ensure your baby is getting enough.3, 5, 11

Read more on supporting your milk supply

How do I know when my baby is hungry?

Signs that your baby is hungry and ready to eat include:

  • Becoming more alert
  • Putting their hands or fingers on or in their mouth
  • Making sucking motions or sounds
  • Sticking their tongue out or smacking lips
  • Rooting (moving their jaw and mouth or head in search of the bottle or breast).6

Many caregivers think crying is the main sign of hunger, however crying is actually a late-stage hunger cue and a sign of distress. Watch for earlier hunger cues, as once a baby is crying, it can be harder to get them to latch or take a bottle.6, 7

Responsive feeding for healthy growth

In the first year of life your baby has very high calorie needs in proportion to their small body size. The average child will triple their birth weight in the first year.8, 9 All of this growth is dependent on good feeding practices.  Meeting your baby’s needs by feeding on demand in response to their cues ensures adequate growth, nutrient intake, and helps promote the essential bonding moments that happen between baby and caregiver.

It can be tempting to encourage your baby to continue breastfeeding or finish a bottle you’ve prepared; however, unless your doctor has instructed you to do so, it’s better to allow your baby to guide the feeding. Let them decide how slow, how often, and how much they eat.1 This is called responsive feeding, and it’s the practice of following and responding to your baby’s hunger and fullness cues.

You will learn about how much breast milk or formula to offer your baby by watching how much baby typically eats. Your baby will fall into their own breast or formula feeding schedule which will then continually change over time. And don’t be surprised if the amount your baby drinks varies throughout the day. Just like adults, babies don’t need all their feeds to be the same size.5

Read more: Understanding Your Baby’s Hunger and Fullness Cues

When does a feeding schedule emerge?

As a few months pass you may notice a more predictable feeding pattern emerge.11 For example, your baby may begin to space out feedings as well as eat more at each feeding. This type of pattern is helpful in creating a breast or formula feeding schedule and routine, but don’t assume that this is the way feeding will go from now on!

Because babies have many growth spurts, especially during their first 6 months, their feeding pattern will change to support that growth.3, 7 During growth spurts you’ll notice your little one will eat much more frequently for a few days, this is called ‘cluster feeding’.3, 2 This helps your little one get the additional calories and nutrition they need.

Your baby’s feeding schedule may shift from day to day and continue to change as your baby grows.5 A baby is a little person after all; some days they’re hungrier than others, so continue to watch for your baby’s hunger cues and make adjustments accordingly.

Starting solids and baby’s feeding schedule

At around 6 months old, when babies typically begin solids, a more consistent feeding pattern may develop. Sometimes these feeding schedules mimic parents eating schedules or daycare schedules, but just as often they don’t – so be prepared to meet baby’s schedule rather than have baby meet yours.

By 6 months most babies’ feeding schedules consist of breast milk (6 to 8 times per day) or infant formula (3 to 4 time per day) plus solids 1-2 times per day.11,12  If your baby seems less interested in nursing or bottle feeding once solids are introduced, be sure to provide breastmilk or formula first before offering solids. Breastmilk and formula should remain the primary source of calories and nutrients under the age of 1 year.10

Have question about introducing solids? Reach out to our team of registered dietitians and lactation consultant for free! They’re here to help on our free live chat from Monday – Friday, 8am-8pm (EST) and Saturday – Sunday, 8am-4pm (EST). Chat Now!  

What should I do to support my baby’s feeding schedule?

Newborn feeding pattern

If you’re in the thick of the first 8 weeks, take a deep breath! You and your baby are both still learning and things will get easier over time. Focus on baby’s feeding cues to let you know what to do.

Feed your newborn 6 to 10 times for formula and 8 to 12 times for breastmilk in a 24-hour period versus focusing on a specific feeding schedule. Follow your baby’s hunger and fullness cues.

Older baby feeding pattern

As baby gets older, their feeding cues may change.7 A consistent baby feeding schedule may not emerge until your baby is around 6 months old. Remember that your baby needs to eat frequently (about every 2 to 4 hours), especially throughout the first 3 months. Watch for your baby’s natural schedule, but do not force it or stick to a rigid baby feeding schedule.

Allow your baby’s cues (not the clock!) to guide you in determining how much breast milk or formula to offer and how frequently. It’s ok if your baby stops nursing sooner than usual or does not finish a bottle, and it’s also ok if your baby prolongs breast feeding or needs you to prepare an additional bottle.

Read more: Breastfeeding on Demand vs. on a Schedule

Find your support group

Build a strong support network. Feeding a baby is a demanding job! Having friends and family members who can support you, whether with holding the baby while you nap or tossing in a load of laundry so you don’t have to, will allow you to focus on yourself and your baby.

And don’t hesitate to reach out to the Happy Baby Experts for guidance and support. Chat now!

Let’s Chat!

We know parenting often means sleepless nights, stressful days, and countless questions and confusion, and we want to support you in your feeding journey and beyond.

Our Happy Baby Experts are a team of lactation consultants and registered dietitian nutritionists certified in infant and maternal nutrition – and they’re all moms, too! They’re here to offer personalized support on our free, one-on-one, live chat platform Monday – Friday 8am-8pm (EST), and Saturday – Sunday 8am-4pm (EST). No appointment needed, no email or sign-up required. Chat Now!

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For more on this topic, check out the following articles:

How much formula does your baby need?

How much formula is enough?

Breastfeeding on demand vs. on a schedule

Baby hunger & feeding cues

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